She’s So Unusual

Photo: Patrick Habron/Courtesy of ABC

On a gloomy first day of spring, Amber Tamblyn is on a street in Tribeca, preparing to shoot a scene from The Unusuals, the new ABC police procedural in which she stars. Her matronly detectivewear—white button-down shirt, shapeless gray slacks—is an unsuccessful attempt to counteract Tamblyn’s delicate baby face, which makes the 25-year-old look like, in her words, “an 8-year-old.” She waves frantically at me from across the blocked-off street: “Did they get you an earpiece to listen in?” she yells. “Get ready—I’m going to say the dirtiest things!”

That comment might shock fans of her biggest hits (TV’s Joan of Arcadia, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films), but it’s classic Tamblyn. While her fame has come from her subtle portrayals of sensitive high-school girls—parts she’s infused with a deeply satisfying accessibility—Tamblyn is ready for her career to evolve and, maybe, become as intriguing as her bio: Her father is actor Russ Tamblyn, most famous for playing Riff in the 1961 movie West Side Story; she was raised in a countercultural household visited by artists, poets, and writers (her godfathers are Neil Young and Dennis Hopper); she now lives in the East Village and dates comedian David Cross, twenty years her senior (more on that later).

In The Unusuals, which follows a kooky group of NYPD homicide cops, Tamblyn plays a rich girl craving legitimacy, much like the actor herself. Tamblyn works hard cultivating a thoughtful, anti-starlet persona—a counterpoint to shiny young things like Blake Lively and Lauren Conrad (neither of whom is likely to parade around a high-profile party in a fake mustache, as Tamblyn recently did). To wit, she has a list of serious pursuits to discuss: her poetry (she’s published one book); the documentary she’s produced about the spoken-word poetry events she attends; campaigning for Hillary Clinton; her job as a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood. Though she never went to college, she studies by “sneaking into classes at Sarah Lawrence with my friend Jeffrey McDaniel,” a professor in the college’s creative-writing department. “He’s a writing mentor.”

She says this knowing you are probably snickering. “It’s hard not to laugh in my own face when I say, ‘I’m an actress and a poet,’ ” she says. “I do good writing, and I work hard on it, but I don’t perform it like it’s the greatest thing that’s ever written. A lot of time actors don’t know how to make fun of themselves.”

“Amber is an iconoclast,” says Noah Hawley, creator of The Unusuals. “When you meet her, she defies your definitions. You assume, this is the actress from the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, she grew up in the industry, she’s going to be an ingenue. But Amber is a poet, she’s really smart, she’s very funny and acerbic in a way that matches the tone of the show.”

Tamblyn, who was nominated for a Lead Actress Emmy (for Joan of Arcadia), landed her first acting gig, on General Hospital, at 11, and spends a lot of time upending the resulting expectations. “I always get the question, ‘How are you so normal?’ ” she says. “Why are you insulting me? Most people think that because you’re a celebrity, you’re going to be something different. It’s just that I have an extraordinary day job.”

And, let’s face it, a somewhat extraordinary relationship with Cross, best known for playing Arrested Development’s Tobias Fünke. “I’m only dating him for the free wi-fi at his house,” jokes Tamblyn. “Oh, and all of his crazy connections in the industry. He is like 107 years older than me. No, 108.” No, seriously. “I don’t think age matters,” she insists. “I’ve dated a lot of guys my age, and they are nothing like David. Someday you’ll interview him, and you’ll see that his level of maturity and mine just sort of perfectly equal out.”

Given her offscreen interests and connections, it’s curious that Tamblyn’s biggest projects have been so Hilary Duff. Where are all the indie parts—the Ellen Page roles? Turns out she’s given this topic a lot of thought. “I think any decent actress could play the indie role where they’re a drug addict and they put a lot of eye makeup on, and they cry and have intense feelings,” she says. “That’s easier to do than to make something mainstream more realistic. I find intrigue in bringing honesty to things that are hypercommercial.”

Tamblyn’s defensiveness is obvious to the listener, if not to her, but it’s also understandable, even endearing—as is her tendency to ping-pong between pretentiousness and self-effacing self-awareness. “I figured out that I don’t know shit and I have no idea,” she says. “All I can say is what I don’t want. I don’t want to ever have to have surgery; I’d like to remind people what a hot silver fox looks like. I don’t want to be the sexual role model. The people that I admire don’t do that, and not to say that I will ever, ever be Meryl Streep, but I hope to be that good at a craft at some point, whether it’s writing, or acting, or washing cars in a bikini and thong … which clearly negates what I just said about being a sex object.”

She’s So Unusual